COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Central Ohio is reacting to a series of NBC4 Investigates reports last week featuring a Columbus church which some former members have called a cult.
More than 60 former members of Xenos Christian Fellowship, which changed its name to Dwell Community Church in 2020, reached out to say they agreed with the allegations and experienced emotional abuse themselves.
“For me, it’s just wanting people to know that there are things that are happening in youth groups, specifically, but across the entire church that are just completely un-okay, and not acceptable,” said one woman, who said she was asked to leave her small group within the church in her mid-teens after confiding in a friend about a sexual experience.
“The church leaders and my discipler basically split up the boys and the girls into two different rooms, while I was there, and revealed to the boys that I had gone to school with since I was in first grade, that I lost my virginity,” she said. “They told everyone while I was there, then they came back and prayed over me.”
This woman spoke with NBC4 Investigates on the condition of anonymity because she still has a parent in the church.
“We really don’t talk a lot about religion anymore, it’s kind of an unspoken,” she said of her relationship with her parent. “As I’ve been in therapy and gotten a little bit stronger in my, I think, conviction that life does have meaning outside of being in this specific church.”
“When there’s so many stories that are identical, it’s clearly an issue,” said another former member who asked to speak anonymously because he, too, has a parent that currently belongs to Dwell. “I have a mental health diagnosis because of Xenos, which I was brought into as a kid. That needs to not be a thing that happens.”
This former member said he and his siblings grew up in the church, and that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after he left. He said he made the decision to leave when he was asked about his sister’s epilepsy, something he said he had not disclosed to the person who had asked him about it.
“They asked me if she had ever done anything occult, or like, done a Ouija board, because part of possession could be epilepsy, like seizures,” he said. “First of all, that’s not real. Second of all, like, that’s absolutely crazy. And they wanted me to talk to her and ask if she’d ever done anything like that.”
A third former member, who also asked not to be identified, wanted to share his mixed views of the church, which he left in 2021.
“I think Xenos – Dwell– has a great idea on what religion is like– what Christianity is about, but the execution is beyond terrible,” he said.
The former member spoke highly of his time living in a church-affiliated ministry house, where he said he learned life skills following his father’s death.
“I thought it was great” he said. “I think ministry houses more so dedicated towards people who want to commit towards a certain like, goal. So like, for me, it was to help me grow as a man, like be able to get finances in order… learn how to, you know, be a man.”
He said he left, primarily, because there were too many meetings to attend.
“Church is obviously important, but I think overwhelming people, making people feel like they’re required to go to things — they would say that you’re not required — but it definitely felt like you’re required,” he said.
Roughly 20 current members also reached out through emails and direct messages on social media, sharing positive stories about their time with Dwell.
“Without this church, I would still follow God. However, I am so grateful for the love I have experienced through Dwell Community Church. I would not have a great marriage or the close friends that I do if it weren’t for this church. The pastoral counseling department in Dwell has helped me overcome a lifelong struggle with anxiety. I am so grateful for that,” read part of one email.
“I am far better off in my relationships because of this church, not only with the community within the church, but also people I am friends with in school, at work, and within my family,” wrote another member.
Another email from someone identifying as a current Dwell member said, “Shame on you, Jamie (Ostroff) for your extremely slanted and poor reporting. If you are a journalism major you know that you should be reporting FACTs, not innuendo or non-specific claims. I am not sure that a falling tree limb, stealing food from a refrigerator, or even giving a beer to a 16 year old falls under the definition of a “cult.” Which is it Jamie – a smear piece on Dwell or factual reporting on a cult?”
Several of the members said they were saddened by the allegations made in previous reports, and some offered apologies.
NBC4 Investigates asked all of them for an interview, but the majority declined, citing concerns of quotes being taken out of context. One member suggested that Dwell leadership had agreed to an interview with NBC4 Investigates on the condition that they also record the interview. No such condition has ever been offered, and Dwell leadership has declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview.
Dwell leadership also declined previous requests to connect NBC4 Investigates with current members.
BELOW: Full interview with current Dwell Community Church member Paul Alexander.
“I’ve been in Xenos/Dwell from childhood to now and at different life stages I felt very supported by members in Dwell – from high school to undergrad to getting my PhD to now working my dream job, getting married, and having my daughter,” Dr. Morgan V. Evans, a leader at Dwell, told NBC4 Investigates. “My home church community, the church leadership, and my friends in different home churches have always supported me and helped me get through these difficult life transitions.”
Paul Alexander joined Xenos in 1995 and has worked for the church as an employee and volunteer for eight years. He agreed to a recorded interview, on the conditions that he be allowed to record as well and that it be made clear that he is not a spokesperson for Dwell.
“I grew up as a child of divorce. I grew up with my mother and grandmother, who were great, but I just found a lot of healing in male relationships,” Alexander said of his time in the church. “As a longtime member of Dwell, and a parent who loves his kids dearly, I’m excited for my children to be a part of Dwell student ministries and discover the love, grace, and relational development that I received when I was younger.”
Alexander coaches adult home churches, hosts a podcast, and works for a mentorship program that pairs adult members with children in the community. His wife of nearly 18 years, whom he met in the church, is a teacher at Harambee Christian School, which is owned by Dwell.
“I don’t want to discount people’s stories, because a lot of them — actually, all that you showed — I don’t know any of those people. Personally, I think there’s a dynamic in our church that makes it both wonderful and at risk for such things,” Alexander said.
Alexander pointed to two factors, which he said may have led to some of the alleged abuses that dozens of former members said they endured.
“We highly value community — close community. The being together a lot with each other, you probably saw that with the Ministry houses,” Alexander said. “When you engage in community at such a high level, I think that leads to conflict, it leads to miscommunication. It leads to people’s insecurities bouncing off of each other. Some of what was described to you– I saw was people feeling pressure. I’ve had to apologize for applying pressure to people and I’ve had members apply pressure to me. And it’s part of doing life together which we highly value.”
He said the second factor was the level of decentralization within the church.
“We have our churches — is almost what you could call a confederacy of up to over 200 small groups around the city, run by over 800 lay leaders who have received training who do get oversight,” Alexander said. “But there is not a pastor or a counselor, or an elder in every one of these groups. And I think that leads to miscommunication and leads to people making mistakes, maybe going further than they wanted to. I don’t know, in the specific cases, what happened with these people? And it makes me sad, yeah, but I think that’s part of the dynamic of what’s going on in our church.”
Asked about the existence of a grievance board, which Dwell elder Conrad Hilario referenced in an email to NBC4 Investigates, Alexander said, “It’s ad hoc. It’s created when necessary, and when needed.”
Alexander said he has never seen a grievance board operating. Asked what feedback he would give church leadership to improve accountability Alexander said, “Not to be secretive, but I will say that I have and would share that freely with those in the church who do listen.”
“As imperfect people we can and do hurt one another but this is not the end,” Evans said. “We have the opportunity to experience true forgiveness and reconciliation in relationships because of the free gift for all people, that Jesus died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and provides justice for wrongdoing.”